Raising Ire

A downtown rep's narrow focus fuels its transformation into an institution

It's tempting to make jokes about rainbows and pots of gold. In the past month, the Irish Repertory Theatre has received two windfalls so significant that they may permanently elevate the company from idiosyncratic downtown survivors to one of Off-Broadway's permanent institutions. Not only has the group won the $100,000 Jujamcyn Theaters Award, presented on March 13 by heavyweight Broadway company Jujamcyn Theaters, but in mid February it also closed a $5.5 million deal to buy its three-floor home in Chelsea.

Not bad for a company that willfully excludes most of the world from its library. Since its inception in 1988, it has produced only Irish and Irish-American writers, tying it to a niche circuit that includes troupes like Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and the Women's Project. But compared to all the Asian nations and half the world's population, the Irish Rep's focus seems awfully narrow. Skeptics might assume the company has offered two decades' worth of twee little drunks and English-hating peasants.

While it does produce naturalistic dramas about Irish identity, the Rep also tackles more genres in a year than many theaters do in a lifetime. The 2005–2006 season swung from the somber elegy The Field to a rock adaptation of Beowulf to Mr. Dooley's America, a wry comedy about the Irish immigrant experience in this country. This season, productions have ranged from O'Neill's expressionistic The Hairy Ape to the sunny musical Meet Me in St. Louis.

The diversity of Irish writing, says Rep artistic director and co-founder Charlotte Moore, keeps the theater from becoming stale. She asserts, "It seems like 60 percent of great writers in the universe are Irish. Our mission doesn't constrict us, because the Irish experience can be expanded. That's the way they think and write, always involving so many other cultures."

Her love for the Irish canon encouraged Moore, who had been working as a Broadway actor, to found the theater with fellow performer Ciarán O'Reilly. He is still the Rep's producing director, though he cites additional motivations for coming aboard. "I was an Irish actor with an Irish accent looking for a job. That was part of it, too," he laughs.

At first it seemed the job wouldn't last long. The theater's first office was O'Reilly's apartment, and all its files fit into a single folder. It would be seven years before the company began renting three floors in a Chelsea high-rise, and no one dreamed they would someday raise enough money to buy it.

Moore recalls, "At first, it was me on the phone making rustling paper sounds, pretending to see if someone could get a reservation the next day when we had no one coming."

Soon, though, the pair discovered the power of their mission. "Individual donations saved us," O'Reilly says. "People will give money because they want to be part of their national culture and national heritage, and they may not even come to the shows."

The theater has bolstered its reputation by opening its doors to high-wattage talent. Sometimes that means taking requests, like when legendary director Harold Prince asked to stage his play Grandchild of Kings in 1991. It also can mean working around a desired artist's schedule. Flexibility with production dates has helped attract names like Ally Sheedy, Marian Seldes, Frances Sternhagen, Brian O'Byrne, set designer Eugene Lee, and Dana Ivey, who won an Obie last year for the Rep's Mrs. Warren's Profession.

Some might wonder why established artists would work with a theater whose $2 million budget eliminates the chance for a major payday. It helps that Moore and O'Reilly can call on friends from their acting days. But Moore, who has directed 47 Rep shows, believes collaborators and patrons mostly value the company's commitment. "I get panicked every time we do a show because I want it to be so good that I can't stand it if it's not," she confesses. "Ciarán and I are both that way."

Meticulousness was on display in a recent rehearsal for Defender of the Faith , a thriller by Irishman Stuart Carolan that runs through April 22. The dark play is set on a dairy farm in the 1980s, and a debate erupted over the most realistic way to stuff an onstage bag of cow feed. A few moments later, O'Reilly, who directs the production, listened with intensity as an actor playing a mysterious government agent explained how he thought his character would intimidate a farmhand.

Jujamcyn Theaters president Rocco Landesman says craftsmanship helped the Irish Rep nab his group's award. "They're a company with a tremendous amount of artistic integrity," he explains. "Most companies seem to constantly look for the possibility to transfer to Broadway, but they've stuck to their mission without too much concern for transfers and commercial runs."

Which is not to say the Rep hasn't had commercial success. For instance, last season's musical George M. Cohan Tonight! will soon begin a national tour. But those boons are often an accident. O'Reilly quips, "Anytime that we've decided to do something because we think it will be popular and pleasing, it hasn't worked."

Sometimes, though, selecting material for its artistic merits can rankle the theater's Irish patrons, who comprise almost half its audience. Remembering a 1996 production of Tom Murphy's A Whistle in the Dark, about a drunken, brawling Irish family living in England and the terrible violence they inflict on one another, O'Reilly says, "We went to the local pub after the opening and got rightly scolded by the Irish waitresses in the bar. They truly didn't understand why we would want to portray Irish people in that light."

But O'Reilly rarely minds that type of criticism. He says, "If it's controversial because it's revelatory about the politics of our country and perhaps exposes some dark truths that might make our audiences uncomfortable, we think it's a good thing to get people to sit up and listen."

 
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